Grammar and politics, or: why grammar is more than just a set of (stupid) rules

Man dies in police taser shooting‘, a BBC news headline brought to my attention by a friend on Facebook, recently got me thinking about my job and my politics and where the two meet. The friend who posted the story captioned it with something like “shouldn’t that be ‘police kill man by shooting him with a Taser'”. He was saying that something in the language of the headline didn’t really capture the truth of the event; it didn’t really place emphasis on the right piece of information – that police had killed a man with a taser gun.

It got me thinking because – although I write and talk about politics a lot – I don’t often, in my spare time, anyway, talk about politics and language. I think this is a shame, because in my professional life (I teach English language and linguistics at a university), the subject of language and ideology is one of my favourite to teach. This post is my attempt to remedy my silence on this subject!

What, I think, is most interesting about the offending headline is the grammar. When you talk about grammar, people often think of fusty old rules, of Lynne Truss’s book, Eats shoots and leaves, of being told that double negatives are a sign of stupidity or that beginning a sentence with a conjunction like ‘and’ or ‘but’ is wrong. For reasons I won’t go into here, I think this view of grammar as a set of prescriptive rules used to berate people communicating in a perfectly understandable fashion is wrong. Perhaps more importantly, I also think it’s tedious (after all, some of the most exciting instances of language in use break the rules. There’s no way anyone can seriously suggest that Star Trek’s opening credits would be improved by unsplitting the – “ungrammatical” – infinitive in ‘to boldly go where no one has gone before’. It should, if you’re one of those prescriptive grammarians, be ‘to go boldly’ but that just sounds, well… rubbish).

But there is another way of thinking about grammar: grammar as a set of subconscious rules we all tacitly know and use as resources for creating meaningful utterances. If you think about grammar as a resource we use to make meanings, the subject becomes a lot more interesting. Thought about in this way, grammar is a resource used to do something – to have some effect on the world.

One of those “functions” of grammar is to encode our experience of the world. Going back to the example I began with, my friend’s objection to ‘man dies in police taser shooting’ is that – whilst the headline didn’t lie – the language didn’t fit his view of events. The example he offered of what the headline should have been was ‘police kill man’ (or something like that).

The main verb, ‘dies’, in the actual headline is called an intransitive verb. This is just a technical way of saying that the ‘doer’ of the verb (the subject) doesn’t have to be doing anything to anyone or anything else (although it’d be a bit obscure, the headline would still make sense if it were ‘man dies’, without the ‘in police taser shooting’ bit). In contrast, the verb used in the rewritten version, ‘kill’, has to be done to someone – someone has to do the killing and someone has to be killed (‘kill’ is therefore called a transitive verb). What’s also interesting is that in ‘man dies’, it’s the man who does the action – the dying – whereas in ‘police kill man’, the police do the action, and – because ‘kill’ is a transitive verb – they have to do it to someone. The verb in each instance is encoding a particular view on events. In the first, the man just dies (why, how?). In the rewrite, the police are named as the cause of the man’s death.

Of course, there’s more to the example than that. We’re told that the man dies ‘in police taser shooting’. What’s interesting about this is the word ‘shooting’. ‘To shoot’ is a verb, but in this example, ‘shooting’ is being used as a noun. The technical term for this is nominalisation – turning a verb into a noun. What nominalisation does is to erase the agent and patient from the representation of events.  ‘Police shoot man’ is reduced simply to ‘the shooting’. What’s more, ‘the shooting’ here is just a circumstance – rather the cause – of the man’s death.

The grammar, here, is representing events in a way that downplays the involvement of the police in the death of the man. It’s representing reality in a way that’s basically favourable to the police, backgrounding their responsibility. Representing reality is the job of ideology and, in this respect, we can say that the grammar of the headline is profoundly ideological. In fact, I’d like to go further – as some “critical” linguists have – and suggest that grammar, or the way we use grammar as a resource for representing reality, actually is ideology, or the fabric from which ideology is cut.

On its own, the ability to distinguish between an intransitive and a transitive verb clearly isn’t going to change the world. But it can sensitise you to the ways in which people use language to promote their interests. That’s why grammar is important, not as a tedious set of rules we learn to speak “good” English, but as a resource we use to represent the world to other people. And – more importantly –  as a resource powerful institutions use to embroider a picture of reality that isn’t in the interests of the majority. It pays to have some tools to unpick that picture.

NB: none of what I have said here is new. If you want to read more, this is good as a start, and if you can get hold of it, this is very interesting. You could also Google ‘Critical Discourse Analysis’ or ‘Critical Linguistics’, both of which are disciplines that examine the relationship between language, ideology and the perpetuation of social inequality.


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